What is Forensic Genealogy?
Before delving into forensic genealogy, let’s talk a bit about genealogy in general. Genealogy is your family history and the methods used to trace that history back through generations. Your family tree starts with you, grows into your parents and their parents’ parents. Genealogy is a hobby for many people seeking to build a family history. However, to be considered a credible depiction of your ancestry, each relationship and fact for members of your family tree must be proven using vital and historical documentation.
The process of identifying and proving these relationships requires access to genealogical resources, a lot of data mining, and a lot of creative know-how. Investigating family roots is quite labor intensive and requires an immense amount of patience. Every generation on a family tree represents an exponential increase in familial relationships that must be proven. Given the difficulty and time required to produce an accurate family history, many individuals decide to elicit the help of a seasoned professional. The professional investigative work to prove familial relationships is done by genealogists.
Genealogists must do their due diligence to ensure that their conclusions are based on the best evidence available after doing exhaustive searches. Any conflicting information regarding family members must be further researched and resolved in a manner that reaches the most sound and accurate conclusions based on all available evidence. All information must be sourced from appropriate documentation and cited.
What is Genetic Genealogy?
When traditional investigative genealogical methods are combined with DNA profiles to infer relationships between individuals, we have genetic genealogy. The simplest form of genetic genealogy happens when someone spits in a tube and sends it to a consumer DNA lab. Their DNA profile is uploaded into a genealogical DNA database and results link them to already known relatives who have also submitted samples.
The process becomes more complicated when unknown relationships are inferred. Sometimes this is the wanted and expected result. An adoptee looking for biological family is hoping that unknown family members have submitted samples that can link them to their roots. Other times unexpected connections are found such as an illegitimate child or misattributed parentage.
Traditional genetic genealogy begins with a DNA profile derived from samples sent to consumer genealogical testing labs. The beginning sample typically belongs to someone who is interested in building their family tree or finding unknown biological relatives. Sometimes the consumer already has knowledge of their ancestors and they are just looking to build upon it or simply provide further proof of kinship. Genetic genealogy is particularly useful for adoptees who have little to no knowledge of their biological families.
What is Investigative Genealogy?
There are times when a genealogist is needed to investigate matters with legal implications. Investigative Genealogists perform this type of work. Investigative genealogists must adhere not only to genealogical standards of proof but also to legal procedural guidelines to ensure their findings have evidentiary value. They must consult with law enforcement and lawyers to ensure all legal procedures are followed and the integrity of the investigation is protected.
Investigative Genealogists have been utilized in criminal and civil investigations for years. Genealogical applications in civil law have consisted of such things as probate and estate searches to identify unknown heirs, military repatriations, land and real estate issues, and identifying relatives of unclaimed remains.
Investigative genealogy is a field that is quickly gaining popularity among law enforcement agencies to catch violent criminals who have escaped detection by law enforcement for years. In the past, even when biological crime scene evidence was present, law enforcement was limited to the CODIS database to match DNA profiles with perpetrators. CODIS profiles could only be matched to the perpetrator or to a very close relative who was legally required to have their DNA profile uploaded.
Current technology can produce DNA profiles that can match with relatives much further back in the family tree. These profiles are created from the samples that consumers send to labs for genealogical purposes. Some of these databases are not accessible to law enforcement without a court order. However, after receiving your DNA profile it can be uploaded to a database that is publicly accessible like GEDmatch. Publicly accessible databases are open to law enforcement.
When a distant relative is identified in one of these databases the process of linking it to the individual the sample originated from is the same as it would be to find the biological family of an adopted person. We are now seeing cases solved that went cold for decades before genealogists, law enforcement and science teamed up. Violent criminals are being brought to justice and families of victims are receiving closure. It’s only a matter of time before we not only see forensic genetic genealogy bringing criminals to justice but also freeing those who have been wrongly convicted.